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  • Beggar for a Day June 18, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    A beggar being a chooser

    Beach has long been curious about the begging life and was fascinated to run across this article from 1889 about how difficult it was to make money in London by holding out your hand. A clearly middle class man took a bet with his friends, after dinner, and presumably after taking port, that he could make five shillings in a day as a beggar: that would be, according to the National Archives cash converter about fifteen pounds or twenty dollars. After looking for clothes that were ‘sufficiently dilapidated’, he set off into the city.

    Ragged, unkempt, with grizzly grey beard (purchased in Drury-lane), with a coat with one arm and half back, a hat without a crown, a tattered old boot one foot and the remnants of lawn-tennis shoe on the other, I made my first public appearance as a beggar. Sixpence was all the money the umpire  allowed me to take; unless I had five shillings more than that at midnight the bet was lost. A good supply of sandwiches and a small flask whisky were, however, stowed away in the lining of my much-torn coat. I had previously made up my mind as to the route I would take. In the morning I would make Piccadilly, Bond-street, and Mayfair the scenes of my labours; in the afternoon I would work Regent-street, and Oxford-street and any other places I thought likely resorts for the charitably disposed. My first essay was made at the corner of Piccadilly and Hamilton-place. Here I stood in mute entreaty, silently holding out my crownless hat – my hand being underneath to catch anything dropped into it – and presenting the most woe-begone appearance. Very little progress was made at this station, in three-quarters of an hour, although hundreds people had passed I had only taken in fivepence.

    At this point the beggar decides to actually ask for money.

    Wending my way into Park-lane I commenced to beseech alms from all the ladies passing to and fro in that fashionable thoroughfare. I walked alongside them short distances, telling a fearful story of starvation; and, during the two hours which I worked this method, coppers fell freely into my hand. An average of about one in every ten appeals was successful in producing something towards the necessary five shillings.

    The ‘beggar’ was a good actor.

    I was just about to desert this method and this locality when a little incident occurred which gave my funds quite a big lift. Espying a lady and gentleman walking towards Mount-street, I advanced close beside the latter and commenced supplications. He was a tall well-built man, and carried a thick Malacca walking cane. The close proximity of such a tattered disreputable creature as myself apparently being distasteful to him, he suddenly brought his heavy stick into position, as if it were a rifle with fixed bayonet, and gave a prod that sent me staggering into the roadway. Without attempting to steady myself, I deliberately and on purpose fell flat on back and lay there. Next instant I heard the lady accompany my assailant say, ‘Oh, how rough you are. You have hurt, the poor creature.’ I raised myself to a sitting posture, and tried to appear as sickly as possible. The two stepped out into the street to look at me, and the man inquired if I was hurt. Ashamed of the deception I was playing [but determined to win my bet and show the chaps what I was made of], I replied ‘Not much,’ and rose to my feet. He handed me a shilling telling me that I had no business begging in the streets, and that had if I been hurt it would have been my own fault.

    Tick tock.

    It was now nearly three o’clock, and I was getting weary of the role I was playing. There was still, however, a couple of shillings to be got before the wager was won. Entering a small bakery, I bought a penny roll, and then proceeded toward Regent-street. Arrived there, I sauntered about in front a confectioner’s shop until I saw two ladies coming towards me. Just when these must pass I placed the roll on the pavement, hid myself round the neighbouring corner, and awaited their approach. The instant they arrived at the spot where the bread lay I stepped forth from my hiding-place and as my eyes had just lit on it, I flung myself right in front of the two ladies, grabbed the roll from beneath their feet pretending to munch it. The ruse was successful. Murmuring something about the poor starved creature, one of ladies began to fumble in her purse, and finally bestowed sixpence on me. Several times I played this trick, always rescuing the roll (which I wished to appear as having been dropped by a baker’s boy) from beneath the foot of well-dressed ladies, and playing on their sympathies to such an extent that very many them thought me a fit object for their charity. Once I had to shift the scene of the maneuvers; for a burly, though good-natured member of the Metropolitan police, who must have been spectator of game, suddenly approached and said, ‘Look here, governor, it takes you a long time to eat that bit of bread. Just see if a little walk won’t improve your appetite. Off from here, now!’ I went. In several streets of Mayfair I repeated this ruse with varying success. Sometimes it would be denounced as a trick; at others I would be recommended to go the workhouse; and on one occasion, when I stooped at the feet of a nervous old lady to pick up the little loaf she screamed ‘Police!’

    He had it coming.

    An elderly lady, while getting out her carriage, espied me pretending to munch my roll, and, stopping in the doorway, searched for some time in her purse, finally with great dignity handing her footman a coin which I felt sure from her august manner and the time she had taken selecting it, must be a shilling. When the lackey handed it to me I found that his mistress’s magnificent donation was halfpenny. I now retired to a secluded spot to count my winnings. These amounted to six shillings and two-pence-halfpenny, it was only twenty minutes past five. The penny roll had done the trick.

    Here comes the tutting and head shaking.

    There are very many sympathetic ladies in London who will not allow man to eat a muddy bit of bread tore their eyes without proffering him some assistance. I had fairly won the bet, and I had won, too, without resorting to any device other than those in the regular practice of professional mendicants.

    And a canter to the moral high ground.

    The receipts of my day’s begging have gone to charity.

    Any other wealthy folks dressing up as beggars: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Beach came here from the Holmes short story ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’.

    St James Gazette, Nov 1889.

    The great Neil H writes in, 30 Jun 2017: This is another old story from Thomas Harman (available in A V Judges). See Nicholas Jennings here (edited version of a good Wikipedia page follows)

    Harman lists by name 215 Upright Men, Rogues and Palliards in separate lists. Of these 18 have been identified with named individuals punished as vagabonds in contemporary court records by Aydelotte. He also found about a dozen more punished for other offences. Taking into account the possibility of coincidences, the likelihood or apprehension, and the use of false names, this does suggest that some of Harman’s information was reliable. The most significant and detailed account given by Harman concerns a man named by him in his list of rogues as “Nicholas Blunt (alias Nicholas Jennings, a counterfeit crank) ”. Harman recounts Blunt’s appearance at his lodgings in Whitefriars on All Hallows Day 1566 seeking alms, naked from the waist upwards, in ragged dirty clothes, his face smeared with fresh blood feigning the “falling sickness” (probably palsy or epilepsy). Being suspicious Harman questioned him, and Blunt claimed to have been suffering from the falling sickness for eight years, and to have been discharged from Bedlam two weeks before, after being an inmate there two years. Harman checked with the keeper of the hospital who denied this, and then had Blunt followed by two boys from his printers, who saw him beg all day, renewing the blood from a bladder, and putting fresh mud on his clothes. They then followed him to Newington, south of the river, where the Constable apprehended him. On being searched he was found to have collected 13s. 3½d. (a labourer would have earned 6d. a day). He was also stripped and found to be fit and well, but escaped naked across the fields in the dark. Having then spent a period begging in the guise of a sailor whose ship and cargo had been lost at sea, and then as “Nicholas Jennings”, a well-dressed hatter who had come to London for work, Blunt happened to accost Harman’s printer on New Year’s Day 1567. The printer recognised him and had him arrested. After denials and another escape attempt Blunt made a confession and was found to have “a pretty house” in Newington, “well furnished” and with a wife living there. Blunt’s punishment combined the old penal techniques of physical punishment and public exposure, with the modern theory of rehabilitation through labour. For the latter he was imprisoned in the new Bridewell. For the former he was whipped at a cart’s tail through the streets of London, and put in the pillory at Cheapside dressed in both his “ugly and handsome attire”. His picture was exhibited there, and while he was whipped, and also outside his house, and kept at the Bridewell “for a monument”. We know that at least the apprehension and whipping took place as there is a record of it in the Repertory of the Court of Aldermen for 13 January 1567. There are also records there of two others admitting similar crimes, in 1547 and 1517. Several illustrations of Blunt’s tale appear in the Caveat. Both these and his story are repeated in later rogue literature . These illustrations and later texts often describe Blunt as an Upright Man, which Harman does not in his text. Little is known about Harman’s life. He was from the gentry, described as an esquire in 1557, and with a coat of arms, with which he marked his plate. He inherited land in several parishes in Kent, and resided on an estate near Dartford from 1547. HIs wife Anne was the daughter of Sir Edward Rogers.[1] In The Caveat he implies that he was a Justice of the Peace, but there is no evidence for this. However, in 1550 he was appointed to collect tax in Kent, and in 1554 and 1555 he was a member of the important Commission responsible for the Thames and its tributaries from near Southwark to Gravesend. A fellow member of the Commission was responsible for the creation of the Bridewell in London, and Harman was clearly acquainted with developments in law enforcement there. The Caveat is dedicated to Bess of Hardwick, although that does not mean that she was known personally to Harman.

    A very well written article if I say so myself . . .

    There is a wonderful woodcut in Harman. There’s a version here but I’m sure I could find a better one.

    You will see this is almost certainly the source for Conan Doyle’s story.

    Bruce T. 30 Jun 2017: A friend’s father, a prosperous businessman and notorious for his practical jokes, belonged to the board of directors of the local bank. In a change of ownership in the early 1980s, he was pushed off the board. As he had been one of the founders of the bank, I don’t have to say that he was livid when it happened, but he got the perfect revenge.

    As he’d been on the board for years, he knew when the bank was up for it’s yearly audit. He found out through friends when the bank inspectors would be arriving. As the bank was about one hundred yards from his house, he woke bright and early to pull off his plan. He went to the local drugstore, bought a dozen or so pencils, a pair of wraparound sunglasses and heads back to his house to get ready. He dons an old raincoat, puts on some old clothes, one of the boy’s baseball caps, picks up a homemade sign with a string taped to it to hold it around his neck, and grabs his wife’s tin measuring cup along with the pencils.

    He gets to the bank just before opening, when the inspectors are due to show. He’s known a number of these inspectors for decades. He plops himself down on the sidewalk in front of the place which is on the busiest street on the busiest corner in town. He puts on the sunglasses, the pencils in the cup, and puts on his sign which reads, “Blind. Please help.” and waits. You couldn’t miss seeing him if you tried.

    About a half hour later, the bank inspectors show and he’s asking for change from them. One of them recognizes him and asks if everything is all right. He gives them this cock and bull story about the medical costs he’s incurred since being diagnosed as legally blind and his wife being laid off her job. He has to beg to keep house and home together as he has no other source of income other than Social Security since he was pushed off the board to make ends meet. The inspectors chip in a few dollars, express their concern and go into the bank.

    In minutes, the bank president is out on the sidewalk, giving the old guy Hell for embarrassing the bank and to get his ass home. As I stated above he was a very well known man in the town, but most people on that crowded street that morning didn’t recognize him as he always wore finely tailored suits and sported fedoras. To them, the oversized, bald as a bowling ball, bank president was haranguing an elderly disabled man. It looked bad and the guy quickly toned it down when he noticed people were watching.The president asked why he was doing what he was and what he wanted? He told him he wanted to be back on the board of the bank he helped create. The president says it wasn’t up to him, he’d have to take it up with the management. The old guy told him that wasn’t a problem and he would be there bright and early every morning with his pencils and his sign, as it wasn’t far and besides, he was “Making a few extra dollars”.

    The president takes him into the bank and sets up a conference call. Our hero is reinstalled to the board, but not without consequences. His wife was getting calls about what he was doing on that sidewalk all morning by people who recognized him. She has to leave work, drive to the bank, and catches him just as he was leaving the place in his moment of victory. She gets him in the car and unloads on him. That man lived a hard life for the next few months, but it didn’t dissuade him. He was still making a spectacle of himself a decade and a half later, up until two weeks before he died peacefully, in his mid-80s

    I drive or walk by his house daily. I still miss his antics, which were constant and creative.Sorry if some of the details were bit vague. That’s been approx. 35 years ago. I wasn’t living in the area at the time and heard it in second hand versions from two of his son’s. That’s about as accurately as I remember it.

    The last time I saw Speed alive was the Memorial Day weekend three weeks before he died. He was standing the middle of the road blocking traffic taking pictures of trees the Mayor at the time had planted as part of some “Tree City” project. Traffic was backed up for blocks. The city workers had planted them in the small green space between the sidewalk and the street beside his house under power and phone lines. Not a bright idea in general, but definitely not beside of Speed’s house. The trees were gone before he went to meet his maker.

    His youngest son is roughly six years older than you are. Speed thought his wife was spoiling the boy and dubbed him “Little Lord Fauntleroy”. He’s called Fauntleroy or “Font” for short, to this day by one and all when he comes home. Perhaps that’s why we don’t see more of him? Speed kept him on a short leash, that’s for certain.

    Invisible, 30 Jun 2017: While not exactly beggars, these ladies took up busking for a day: Some New York ladies were desirous of finding out whether people who sang in the streets made a good living. They adopted a sufficient disguise, and, taking a guitar, went forth to try their fortunes. After singing and playing for an hour and a half they had collected one dollar and eighty-eight cents. [a little over $50 today.]
    Western Kansas World [WaKeeney, KS] 23 July 1892: p. 5

    Invisible 31 Jul 2017: Another for your professional beggar files: A Milwaukee genius has established a school for the training of professional beggars. He furnishes disguises, rules for begging and a regular route for each of his pupils, telling them the stories to use and the peculiarities of those they are likely to meet. In exchange he demands half the profits.
    The Iola [KS] Register 12 July 1889: p. 2

    In Italy is to be found a whole village of well-to-do retired organ grinders, who are now spending comfortable fortunes acquired in America. The Leon [IA] Reporter 15 February 1900: p. 4

    VERY GOOD AS A LEGEND.— The following legend relates how a certain Grand Duke of Florence built a bridge without expense to the State: The Grand Duke issued a proclamation that every beggar who would appear on the grand plaza at a certain designated time should be provided with a new suit of clothes free of cost. At the appointed hour the beggars of the city all assembled, whereupon the officers caused each avenue of the public square to be closed, and then compelled the beggars to strip off their old clothes, and gave to each one, according to promise, a new suit. In the old clothes thus collected enough money was found concealed to build a beautiful bridge over the Arno, still called the Beggar’s Bridge! Publication: Godey’s Lady’s Book, Date: October, 1872